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The holiday season is squarely upon us – time to ditch work in favour of festivity, family and (most importantly) food.
Melody Thomas speaks with three Halls about their signature Christmas dishes, and how they all come together on the day.
December is a busy time for Jasmine Hall – she’s two years into her PhD in pure maths, and this month will be chocka with conferences and summer tutoring. But Christmas itself always has been and always will be about family. Nearly every year for as long as she can remember, Jasmine has had Christmas with her maternal grandparents Sesa and Tevita in Tawa. Jasmine’s Mum is Tongan and her dad is English, so Christmas dinner features the best of both – roast and a trifle, and sapasui, lū, ‘ota ika, haka, ‘otai and keke.
This year, Jasmine will make one of her favourite Tongan dishes, ’ota ika, which is like a Polynesian ceviche made with raw fish marinated in lemon juice til the flesh turns opaque (there are similar recipes all over the Pacific). ‘I’ve always loved it. It’s simple and fresh and lets the ingredients speak for themselves.’ In Tonga, ‘ota ika is made for special occasions, though as long as you have access to fresh fish it can be eaten anywhere, anytime. ‘It’s even more delicious in the islands as you would catch the fish and make your own coconut milk,’ says Jasmine, ‘It really captures the heart of island cooking.’
500g fresh fish fillets (choose a firm white fish, such as moki, snapper, mullet) 400ml coconut milk (if canned, shake well before use) 1 capsicum, diced 3 large lemons/limes, squeezed ½ cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced A couple of handfuls of cherry tomatoes, diced 3 spring onions, finely diced chilli to taste, finely diced salt and pepper to taste
The recipe is incredibly simple! We usually eyeball the quantities, so there is definitely room to change things up depending on what you like. I start by washing the fish and cutting it into bite-sized pieces before squeezing over the lemon/lime juice and adding a sprinkle of salt. Mix well and leave to marinate in the fridge for anywhere from an hour to overnight depending on how you like your fish – I usually stick to around three hours, and halfway through give it a good mix. While waiting, I pick the vegetables from my grandpa’s garden and prepare them. When the fish is ready, drain the lemon juice if you like, though I prefer to keep some for extra flavour. Mix the fish well with the diced vegetables and coconut milk and finish with seasoning and chilli to taste. Serve chilled with taro, cassava, kumara, yams, green bananas (all of which are traditionally cooked in an ‘umu/hāngi). It will separate, so be sure to enjoy it that day!
Kylie Hall teaches eight and nine-year-olds at Berhampore School. She’s one of those teachers who’s adored by every kid she ever taught, in large part because she loves her job. But that’s not to say she doesn’t look forward to the holidays. Come November, when everyone else is bemoaning the too-early appearance of Christmas decorations and gift wrap in the shops, Kylie Hall and her mum Jenny are celebrating: this is the signal they’ve been waiting for, to start planning the year’s festivities. ‘We love to go through all the boxes of decorations and remember when and where we got a favourite decoration,’ she says ‘This year we have our eye on a Christmas flamingo.’
The official start of the Hall family Christmas season is the first weekend in December, this is when they decorate the tree and the house. Then they think about Sinterklass, a tradition harking back to their Dutch heritage which, on seeing family in Holland celebrating every year, Kylie decided looked like too much fun to miss. Here, the Halls celebrate with a family dinner and the sharing of little treats or Dutch chocolates.
Kylie decided to cook Runderlappen for the Sinterklass meal after close consultation with her Dutch cousin Mavis, because it read like a recipe that everyone (‘including my grandparents’) would enjoy. The recipe is simple, especially using a slow cooker as Kylie does, which comes with a bonus: ‘This delicious aroma fills the house and we start to think how we want to serve it, with fresh crusty bread, or on rice, or just by itself,’ she says. ‘Some years I make it with my Dutch grandad, Nick, and he can not believe how easy it is to make and how subtle the spices are.’
Runderlappen (Dutch Spiced Beef)
3 lb round steak, cut into six pieces salt and pepper ½ cup butter or bacon drippings 3 medium onions, sliced 1 cup water 3 tablespoons vinegar ½ tablespoon mustard 1 bay leaf ½ teaspoon whole cloves 5 peppercorns
Cut the beef chunks into small pieces, then pound meat and rub each piece with salt and pepper. Heat butter or bacon drippings in skillet until very hot. Brown meat thoroughly on both sides. Shortly before meat is done, add onions, and fry lightly, but not to the point of browning. Place meat in a covered baking dish (or slow cooker).
To drippings and onions in skillet add water, vinegar, mustard, bay leaf, cloves, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil and pour over meat. Cover meat and simmer very gently for 2–3 hours at 350º until very tender, turning meat every half-hour, or if using slow cooker, cover and cook on low heat for 7-8 hours or high heat for 3-4 hours.
Warren Hall is taking what some would consider a risk this Christmas – he’s making a family recipe for the very first time. He’s not too worried about it though; despite the impressive presentation he reckons it looks pretty straight forward. Broken Glass was one of his Mum Audrey’s signature desserts – loved equally by adults and kids: ‘It looks like a mosaic of broken glass, and it tastes like a cross between jelly and ice cream.
That’s what sets it apart,’ he says. Mum’s other specialty was a steamed pudding that she would cook with silver threepences inside. In later years, when coins were no longer made of a metal safe for cooking, the little silver coins were returned to her in exchange for current currency, so her precious collection didn’t diminish. While there are a bunch of family recipes used by his siblings, like fish pie and lambs brains with white sauce, Warren tends to throw things together without a recipe, enjoying combining unusual flavours (one favourite is seared tuna with freshly ground coffee beans).
Warren’s Mum passed away three years ago, just before her 92nd birthday, and his Dad in April this year at age 95, so this will be his first Christmas without both of them. ‘It will be a bit sad, but we’ll all toast them on Christmas Day. I’m not a religious person, but I do believe our parents live on in us, just by way of the genes they pass to us and the parts of their personalities that we picked up from them.’
Audrey’s broken glass
255g jelly (we use 4 packets) 375ml pineapple juice 1 1/2 tbs gelatine powder 300ml thickened cream 3–4 cups hot water
Set the jellies individually, using 1 cup of hot water for each jelly. Once they’re set, cut them into small cubes and set aside. Meanwhile stir the gelatine into half of the pineapple juice and heat gently while stirring, or zap it in the microwave for about 60 seconds. Once it’s dissolved, add the leftover pineapple juice and chill for about 10 minutes (be careful not to let it set). Then mix the pineapple juice mixture with the cream and add the cut-up jellies. Rinse a jelly mould in water but don’t dry it; Put everything in the mould and refrigerate until set.
To help release the jelly from the mould, sit it in hot water in the sink for a few minutes, making sure no water enters the mould.